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Wednesday, 13 October, 1999, 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK
Children's mental health 'ignored'
The government is blamed for focusing too much on exams
The government and media have become obsessed with children's academic achievements and their physical well-being, to the detriment of their mental health, says a leading charity.

Mental Health
One in five young people under 20 are estimated to have a mental health problem ranging from anxiety to major psychotic disorders.

The Mental Health Foundation says the same priority needs to be given to mental health as to exams and physical health.

It also calls for more cash for the mental welfare.

The government recently announced an 84m programme to look at mental health services for children.

But the foundation says this is unlikely to be enough since the sector has been neglected for so long and the problems are so widespread.

Its comments come as it publishes the results of a two-year committee of inquiry into the subject which calls for earlier intervention and better support for young people at school and at home.

June McKerrow, director of the foundation, said the help children received for mental health problems was "patchy, underfunded and plagued by a lack of coordination between the different agencies involved".

She stated: "Adult society as a whole needs to recognise the importance of children's mental health and take action now."

Forty-four recommendations

The committee is composed of a variety of different mental health groups, health experts and journalists.

Young people with mental health problems are not getting the support they need
It considered more than 1,000 pieces of evidence from parents, children and mental health and childcare professionals.

Its report, Bright Futures, contains 44 recommendations.

They include a call for school league tables to measure mental well-being and a proposal for a standing commission on the emotional and mental health of children to oversee production of a national framework of mental care for children and training for all people working with children.

The framework, which would be similar to that developed for adults, should set clear targets for health, social services and education, says the report.

Other recommendations relate to support for families, pre-school and school provision, services for young people and marginalised children.

Long hours

The report says that the National Family and Parenting Institute should promote the "vital role parents can play in promoting children's mental health".

It adds that the government should ensure parents do not work such long hours that their time with their children is limited.

Britain currently has the longest working hours in Western Europe.

It also calls for special efforts to be made to ensure fathers are not excluded from their children's care, for example, by promoting paid paternity leave.

And it says all parents need more support before their children are born so they are adequately prepared for their responsibilities.

The report argues for more focus on emotional well-being in schools.

A spokeswoman for the Mental Health Foundation said league tables could promote children's social welfare by assessing measures such as the presence of peer counselling for children with emotional problems or of a member of staff or school nurse who could deal with mental health problems.

The report says teachers need more training in how to intervene in potential problems at an early stage.

It also calls for targeting of children with specific problems or those who are marginalised, such as young offenders.

They should be assessed before being held in custody, says the report.

Studies show that 66% of people held on remand in England and Wales have a mental health problem.

This compares with 39% of sentenced prisoners and 25% of the general population.

A spokeswoman for the foundation said young people behind bars often missed out on treatments so that young offenders' institutions became "a revolving door" rather than helping them towards rehabilitation.

National Curriculum

Judi Clements, chief executive of charity Mind, which has been working in schools to raise awareness of mental health issues, backs the demand for a national policy.

She wants mental health to be a core part of learning "from the cradle to the grave" and says teachers need training to recognise the early signs of mental health problems so they can refer children to specialists.

"The world is a much more complex place now than it was 25 years ago," she said.

"There are more pressures on children to achieve, to perform for their peers as well as for adults.

"There was not as much availability of drugs. Nor as many opportunities to be independent, which can be a good thing, but can lead to more pressure."

She added that parents also needed help to come to know how to deal with the problems facing their children.

See also:

03 Feb 99 | Health
One child in five 'mentally ill'
13 Oct 99 | Health
Action urged on jail suicides
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